After a short visit earlier this year, American singer/songwriter Shawn Phillips is back, exploring his new- found affinity for South African music. He spoke to Julia Beffon
‘TWAS a man of no longer youthful features who settled down to talk about his second series of concerts in South Africa last week, and his long reddish hair — tied in a neat ponytail — has touches of grey in it these days.
But, despite coming into the interview straight from a 14- hour drive from Port Elizabeth, Shawn Phillips is still full of enthusiasm for South Africa, its musicians and the road ahead.
The man whose Second Contribution influenced a generation with its blend of haunting ballads and sharp social commentary has returned for a two-month tour to satisfy the fans who missed him first time round — and record an album with local musicians.
His quest to find out more about South African music means his schedule is not too strenuous — “I made them agree I’d play only three gigs a week” — so he can get to see the country. But his first purchases were not local albums or curios. “I’m travelling with an electric blanket under one arm and a heater under the other — I never thought it would be this cold.”
Phillips made a brief visit to South Africa earlier this year to play at Splashy Fen and a couple of the major centres. The response caught both Phillips and the promoters on the hop.
“I wasn’t here long enough for all the people who wanted to see me,” he says. He returned to play at the Grahamstown festival and do a tour of smaller centres such as Knysna and Potchefstroom as well as the big cities.
His enduring popularity here was something of a surprise: “I knew I sold records in South Africa, but had no idea it was of that scale. I had no idea I was double platinum here. I keep getting stories from people that confirms to me that what I’m doing is right.”
He was impressed by what he saw of the musicians at the Smirnoff Jazz Festival in Grahamstown: “I saw Morris Goldberg, David Leadbetter, Short Attention Span — they’re absolutely world class musicians, these guys.
“I’m the first to admit I’m a musical snob. I want a musician to astonish me. For example, the brass section of the Truly Fully Hey Shoo Wow Band, those people are scary — it’s a tower of power. They’re the tightest brass section I’ve heard in years.” The band will be backing him at some of the concerts on this tour.
“I’m also very impressed with Madala Kumene — I really want to get in the studio with Madala. This guy has made an absolutely incredible album, and he’s sold maybe 20 copies. We drove through the countryside listening to his album — it was amazing. The only criticism I had was that on a couple of the tracks I thought the drummer was a bit lazy.”
Phillips won’t leave his appreciation of South African music at that, however. “First they want me to do another compilation album — I’m not that keen on it, but okay. But I want to get in there with a bunch of these people. The next record I make will be made here, no question about that.”
His music defies definitive categorisation and has changed down the years from the acoustic guitar sound of the earlier albums to a fuller, richer sound with a lot of jazz/blues influences.
But his career has been one of conflict with those in the recording industry who package artists and sway musical tastes. “After the second concept album, Faces, things started changing in the music business and A&M said ‘no more concept albums’. I asked why, and they said it was because the DJ can’t get out of a long cut. Have they never heard of a fader?”
He has come to terms with some of the commercial demands: “If I want to stay in front of the public, though, there is that certain amount of compromise that I have to make, and I want to be able to be of a stature that I can still go out and play 2 000 people or more.” But not too big: “Five thousand is about the biggest I like; beyond that it becomes a social occasion.”
He says music videos have “negated the individual’s imagination. They put it into a picture for you — before that, you had to create your own picture.” This has influenced which music the public gets to hear, he says. “Someone took a copy of one of my albums to a DJ in Toronto, and says ‘Here’s the new Shawn Phillips album’. He says ‘I never heard of Shawn Phillips, what does he look like?’ He gave him the album and the DJ says ‘I don’t wanna hear the album, what does he look like?’
“That’s how badly out of control it is. The record companies are forcing people to buy an image not a craft.”
He has strong opinions on where music is now: “Rap is a pure expression of powerlessness. It’s: ‘I can’t change anything, I can’t do nothin’ and the only thing I don’t like is …’ It’s more rhythm than it is music. Paul Buckmaster once said to me ‘you’ve been writing rap for years, you just do it musically’.”And techno pop is, well, techno pop. If you listen to it there isn’t a hell of a lot of melody. It’s just fiddling with the technology.
“Even though there’s all these nomenclatures that we give things, the bottom line is there’s a great deal of difference between music and the music business. The music business is exactly that, it is designed to ring a cash register — and to reach the lowest common denominator.”
In an age of accelerating change and a data deluge, it is difficult to communicate with people, as an individual or as a performer. But he has not given up hope of the getting the message across. “Words have not lost their magic. If someone is truly listening, they’ll pick up on it. Those words will make a difference, they will resound in your heart and in your head.”
Phillips’ words are still resounding gently through the world: “Years ago I could have started playing that music business game and I could be rich and all of that, but I wouldn’t have done anything that gratified me. The way I do it now, it gratifies me.”
* Shawn Phillips will be gratifying audiences at the Wits Great Hall in Johannesburg this weekend. Shows start at 8pm.